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Celebrating STEM at the NC Science Festival

Saturday was a cold and blustery — yet sunny — day. Nevertheless, the UNC Science Expo had been on our family calendar for months and a little wind wasn’t going to stop us from sciencing.

My three year old, nicknamed Little Dude, has a vague notion of what science is. He knows about the moon, sun, outer space, and the “Milky Alaxy.” Because of several unfortunate incidences of static shock this winter, he knows a little bit about electricity. And because my husband and I try to outlast the endless “why” questions, he knows why clouds exist and where rain, thunder, and lightning come from.

As we all bundled up and piled into our car, Little Dude was mostly excited about riding in the wagon with his baby brother. They were all smiles as they bumped along on the brick sidewalks at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. One of the first booths we came to had a table covered with Snap Circuits. Little Dude listened with rapt attention as Melissa Rooney, an electrochemist, explained how batteries work: electrons are all crammed on one side and they really want to get to the other side. Circuits give the electrons a path on which to travel so they can reach the other side of the battery.


It took a fair amount of leverage to pry him away from that booth to see what other exciting things we’d discover at the UNC Science Expo. Maybe he’ll be an engineer.

PrintThe UNC Science Expo is the signature event of the North Carolina Science Festival and took place on Saturday, April 9, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The free event gave children and adults the opportunity to tour research labs, experiment with hands-on activities, watch live science demonstrations, and meet scientists.

“Do you want to touch a real human brain?” asked one of the students from the Department of Neuroscience. At this moment, Little Dude’s skepticism crept in. Why on earth did we bring him to this cold, crowded street to touch a brain? Not one to deprive my children of unique opportunities, I urged him to put on an exam glove and tell me if the brain felt squishy.


The answer? “Yeah.” A little intrigued, and a little grossed out. He might not end up a neuroscientist.

A highlight of the expo was its “science street,” with Cameron Avenue closed to traffic and filled with exhibits and demonstration tents. This year’s expo featured more than 100 exhibits and activities.

At the Conservators Center booth, Little Dude was amazed to see how large a lion’s paw print is, how skinny a fox’s skull is, and how soft a serval’s fur is.

At the paleontology booth, Little Dude discovered just how small he is compared to a tyrannosaurus rex and got to touch several fossils, including an allosaurus foot.

Building on the circuitry skills he learned from playing with the Snap Circuits, Little Dude and I raced solar-powered robot cars.


Perhaps most exciting for Little Dude — and me, let’s be honest here — was the chance to look at the sun through a special telescope (or “helloscope,” as he calls them). The solar filter allows a viewer to see the sun as a large red ball. It is pretty neat to be able to see the details of our closest star so clearly.


The North Carolina Science Festival was founded in 2010 and is the first statewide science festival in the United States. Each spring, the Festival offers hundreds of events that celebrate the economic, educational, and cultural impact of science throughout North Carolina. The 2016 North Carolina Science Festival is April 8-24. With events happening in each of the 100 counties, there is a variety of high-quality, engaging activities for a wide range of audiences. Click here to see this year’s calendar and to find an event near you.


As we headed back to the car, the kids bumping along in the little red wagon, we asked Little Dude what he would want to study if he were a scientist. He responded with one of the most enlightened ideas, considering his current interests: “outer space electricity.” You go, kid!

Alisa Herr

Alisa Herr is the former chief technical officer of EducationNC.